APIs can, for the time being, be copyrighted
There was an interesting turn of events in the Oracle vs. Google Java API lawsuit last friday. The original trial judge had ruled that an API are not copyrightable; last week the US federal Court of appeals reversed this decision, APIs are copyrightable. This legal battle is not over and the ruling can flip and flop its way up to the US supreme court, and not being a lawyer I’m happy to leave the legal discussion to others. Let’s assume that Oracle eventually win their Java API copyright claim, what does that mean for computer language usage and software developers?
If Oracle’s API copyright claim is upheld then they are potentially in line for a huge payout (Google might get to wiggle out of paying much via a fair use justification). I’m sure that some people will claim that this ‘win’ will kill off Java, even if this is true (I don’t think it is), what do the suits care? Give me a billion dollars and I will happily support the removal of any computer language from planet Earth.
In the early days of Android Google needed Java compatibility more than Java needed anything to do with Android. Now Android has such a commanding market share Google does not need to worry so much about Java compatibility. If Oracle had any interest in the future of Java they would be worried that this court case could result in Google switching the Android ecosystem to using a slightly incompatible Java-like language. In practice this court case is the only real opportunity for Oracle to make serious money from their Java intellectual property and they are not that excited about a steady stream of peanuts from future goings on.
What does Oracle winning the API copyright claim mean for developers?
If Google do launch a Java-like language then Java’s “write once run anywhere” mantra will be less true than it currently is (by avoiding a few traps and not straying too far from the well trodden path Java developers can create programs that are remarkable portable). In its market niche there is no other language that comes close to providing the kind of portability that Java offers, so existing users will be annoyed at having to worry about one more portability issue but are unlikely to jump ship.
The much more interesting question is the impact an Oracle win has on other companies producing products that include an API; they now have something to wave at competitors who have API-alike (I just made that word up) products. Any developer using an API that has its very own copyright discussion thread is likely to become a bit twitchy. The general result will be a cloud of uncertainty over some existing APIs from some providers.
Anybody introducing a new API will have to answer the ‘copyright’ question: “Do you claim copyright on your API?” In practice a very very small percentage of APIs ever get copied/cloned, because most fail or the competition comes up with what they think is a better API.
Would I care if a company claims copyright on its API and says it will sue anybody who copies/clones it? Obviously I have to use that API if it is the only way to get a job done, but what if I had a choice between it and a non-copyrighted API? I don’t think the question of copyright would be an issue for me, but I would be concerned if any company was being overly legalistic; do I really want to deal with a company more interested in legal matters than supporting developers? I think not.